Superheroes are relatable because they struggle with their health. Whether it’s a physical or mental disorder, some characters find it hard to come to terms with what they’re experiencing. A disorder that needs to be talked about more is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This illness is associated with head trauma and causes aggression, memory loss, depression and dementia.
CTE is a disorder that affects athletes and soldiers because of their exposure to high impacts. Luke Cage was diagnosed with CTE and he struggled to accept it. I’m examining the nature of CTE and how Luke’s diagnosis helped to shine a light on a disease that needs to be taken seriously.
Understanding the symptoms
According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, CTE is caused by a protein called Tau. It forms clumps in the brain and destroys cells over a long period of time. People with a history of repetitive brain trauma are at risk and symptoms don’t normally appear until years after injury. Early symptoms appear in the late 20s and early 30s, with patients suffering from behaviour changes.
CTE was first described in 1928 by Dr Harrison Martland. He called it ‘punch drunk syndrome’ after seeing it manifest in a group of boxers. Researchers found similar cases in other sports professionals, yet fewer than 50 cases were confirmed. The disease has only been confirmed after death. CTE is considered to be a controversial topic because organisations like the NFL have dismissed it as being non-existent.
Coping with the effects of CTE
In Luke Cage: Everyman, Anthony Del Col incorporated CTE into the character’s story. Del Col consulted a CTE expert called Dr Adamson to make sure it was portrayed in a realistic way. Cage’s struggle to come to terms with the disease is a poignant reflection of what sufferers experience.
When speaking to Del Col, Dr Adamson gave a detailed report on CTE and its effects.
“CTE is believed to be associated with a variety of behavioural, emotional, cognitive and motor function symptoms. Emotional and behavioural symptoms include mood swings, disinhibition, paranoia, irritability, violent outbursts and impulsiveness. Cognitive symptoms include confusion, decreased attention and concentration, memory impairment, executive dysfunction, language impairment and visuospatial difficulties. Motor function symptoms include tremor, mild imbalance, eventual gait or limb ataxia, spasticity and Parkinsonism.”
“As of yet, there have not been any prospective studies linking CTE to specific clinical signs, symptoms or behaviours in living persons.”
In the graphic novel, Luke tracked a serial killer who targeted Harlem’s rich and powerful. He experienced CTE symptoms like depression, paranoia and memory loss. This could be seen when he forgot his daughter’s name and lashed out at Iron Fist. At first, Cage’s pride stopped him from acknowledging the signs. But he was forced to confront the idea of how the illness could change his identity as a father and husband. It terrified Luke to the point that he considered retiring from being a superhero.
The idea of an invulnerable man becoming vulnerable is humbling. Cage has shrugged off bullets and grenades, yet it wasn’t enough to protect his brain. Each concussion increased the risk of CTE developing. I thought Del Col did a brilliant job of presenting CTE. Luke’s struggle demonstrated how scary the disease can be. If you think someone is suffering with CTE then I urge you to encourage them to get help.